RIGA - There was an exhilarating buzz of excitement at the New Theatre Riga on Oct. 16 for the world premiere of the solo theatre production “Brodsky/Baryshnikov” starring Riga’s own native son, the dancer, choreographer, and actor Mikhail Baryshnikov. Baryshnikov was born in Riga in 1948, and it was also in Riga that the young “Misha” started to take ballet lessons at nine years of age.
“Brodsky/Baryshnikov” is not a biographical account of the relationship formed between Brodsky and Baryshnikov, but focuses solely on the poetry of Joseph Brodsky, a Nobel laureate in literature. The work was created for Baryshnikov by the Latvian actor, dramatist, set designer, and artistic director of the New Theatre Riga, Alvis Hermanis, who personally selected all the poems featured in the production. Brodsky wrote nine volumes of poetry and is celebrated as one of the greatest Russian poets of his generation.
Reading in Russian, Baryshnikov recited 44 of Brodsky’s poems. The poems in “Brodsky/Baryshnikov” ran the gamut of human emotions, feelings and experience; poems truthful, pure, deeply religious, intimate. Baryshnikov endeavoured to capture the fearlessness of Brodsky’s work, as well as the depression and confusion; the hate, but also the love. Brodsky’s poetry dealt in unpleasant, harsh truths. The audience was confronted with Brodsky the realist of the least comforting and comfortable kind, echoing thoughts of Stephen Spenderin of The New Statesman.
Hermanis’ stage-directing also captured what I perceived, in the absence of a language I spoke, to be moments of political terror. The respected Nobel literature laureate Czeslaw Milosz, a towering figure in twentieth-century Polish literature, and one of the most respected poets of recent years, stated that, “behind Brodsky’s poetry is the experience of political terror, the experience of the debasement of man and the growth of the totalitarian empire. I find it fascinating to read his poems as part of his larger enterprise, which is no less than an attempt to fortify the place of man in a threatening world.”
Baryshnikov, who met Brodsky in 1974, shortly after he was forced by the Russian authorities into exile, stated that Hermanis was aware of the 20-plus year relationship which had formed between himself and Brodsky. Baryshnikov remained close to Brodsky right up to his death in 1996, of a heart attack in his Brooklyn apartment.
For Hermanis, who grew up reading Brodsky, Brodsky “had a big impact on his life and creative credo,’’ said Baryshnikov. According to Baryshnikov, the idea of the production originated from Hermanis, after the two had explored various potential artistic collaborations.
Theatre is Baryshnikov’s first love. He has performed in works by Beckett and Chekhov, and has starred alongside Willem Dafoe in The Old Woman, staged at the Manchester International Festival. This year he also appeared in another solo performance, Robert Wilson’s “Letter to a Man,” which premiered at the Festival di Spoleto in Italy. This work was based on the diaries of Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the most celebrated dancers and choreographers of his time, who danced in Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and created seminal choreographies himself.
Though Baryshnikov has been cited alongside dancers such as Vaslav Nijinsky and Rudolf Nureyev as one of the greatest ballet dancers in history, the production did not use any form of dance, instead utilising body language to accentuate the depth of some of Brodsky’s poems. “Ageing. More and more mortality in the body, more of what life doesn’t need. Strength has been stolen from my muscles,’’ read Baryshnikov.
For part of the readings Baryshnikov appeared semi-naked. His torso though still supple, bore witness of time’s decaying effect on a body. But Baryshnikov has stated that the compensation for ageing is working with new people. “I’m afraid of getting bored with myself. Because time is ticking and I’m in my 60s. Let’s face it, the thought of mortality, especially in men, gets stupidly inflamed,’’ Baryshnikov has stated.
But “Brodsky/Baryshnikov” is a production primarily about art. And, in Brodsky’s words, art teaches “the privateness of the human condition.’’
‘’It fosters in a man a sense of his uniqueness, of individuality, or separateness—thus turning him from a social animal into an autonomous ‘I.’ A work of art, of literature especially, and a poem in particular, addresses a man tete-a-tete, entering with him into direct—free of any go-betweens—relations.”
It may not have been Baryshnikov’s readings of Brodsky’s lyric poems that freed me. As Baryshnikov’s towering iconic celebrity statues, created an all too overpowering effect as one watched a star. But it was my own reading of Brodsky’s poems, as I walked Riga’s cold streets littered with autumn leaves, holding the English poem summaries, that the realisation occurred that Brodsky the poet was attending to something immediate, specific, writing about what he had felt, experienced, and what he had known and had observed.
A total of 15 performances of the production have been scheduled by the New Theatre Riga. All the performances, which will take place on the big stage of the theatre, which seats 470, have sold out. There has been a fierce appetite for tickets for the shows, with some being offered for 500 euros on Facebook and on the popular Latvian site ss.lv -- more than the average monthly salary in Latvia.